Al Franken is a long-time liberal warrior accused of predatory sexual behavior who is now licking his wounds in exile.
Brett Kavanaugh is a long-time conservative warrior accused of predatory sexual behavior who is now licking his wounds on the United States Supreme Court.
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Donald Trump—who faces a more extensive roster of allegations than either man but has never seemed to be licking any wounds about them—finds that contrast vastly entertaining.
The president’s gleeful taunts of Franken as a quitter at a campaign rally in Minnesota on Thursday night—he folded “like a wet rag,” Trump cackled—were, for Democrats, a wicked preface to their ash-in-mouth defeat this weekend in the Kavanaugh nomination fight.
Whether Trump knew it or not, his remarks were perfectly pitched to stoke anxieties that have haunted many top Democratic operatives for a generation: the fear that their party loses big power struggles because Republicans are simply tougher, meaner, more cynical and more ruthless than they are.
A belief in one’s own virtue feels good. Losing a battle that could shape the American political landscape for decades feels bad. The tension between the two left some Democrats grappling anew this weekend with the implications: Maybe they really are the Wet Rag Party.
“They are more ruthless,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who over a quarter-century has served as a top aide to Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. “And I don’t want to be like them. … The answer can’t be for Democrats to be just as cynical.”
This is more or less the Michelle Obama Doctrine, as articulated at the 2016 Democratic convention, just a few weeks before Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump: “When they go low, we go high.” Post-Kavanaugh Democrats interviewed this weekend aren’t exactly repudiating this idea—but they are qualifying it in important ways. As they articulate it, their answer is to be more realistic about what they see as Republicans’ strategy to disregard principle and process in their pursuit of power—as they argue the GOP did in ramming through Kavanaugh despite accusations of sexual assault—and more disciplined in a long-term way in fighting back.
One key, some prominent voices say, is more willingness to behave rudely, even in the respectable parlors where Democrats historically have turned for validation.
“Democrats are the first to believe elite opinion and editorial-page opinion represent America, and they don’t,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
When he worked as an aide to President Bill Clinton, Emanuel said, he often heard Clinton’s view that ever since Lyndon B. Johnson and Vietnam, Democrats have had “a physical allergic reaction about exercising power in pursuit of your goals.”
But the example of Michael Avenatti highlights a tension for Democrats. As he flirts with an improbable 2020 presidential run, the lawyer for Stormy Daniels says his motto is: “When they go low, we hit harder.” People on both sides of the nomination fight said he probably helped Kavanaugh by introducing less credible allegations, showing that scorched earth isn’t necessarily fertile ground for Democrats.
Emanuel, who recently decided not to seek reelection in part because of dissent from his leadership within his own party, doesn’t frame it so starkly. “It’s not about being meaner and more vicious than the other side. It’s being tougher and ruthless about achieving your real mission” on policies, he told me.
Two important points of context:
I have heard no Democrats say even privately that they think the path to victory involves being more tolerant of sexual harassers or other miscreants in the ranks (though it is not hard to find people on background who say the party may have been too quick to make Franken walk the plank).
What’s more, despite this weekend’s howls from Democrats, a generation as a Washington journalist reminds me that partisans of both stripes tend to fantasize that they are less effective because they have more conscience—that the other side is more hotly violent in the thick of battle, more coldly calculating about the long-term war.
Republicans treasure their own grievances about what they view as the opposition’s willingness to win ugly (see Bork, Robert), often with the added claim that the “mainstream media” are serving as accomplice. Whatever factors fueled Kavanaugh’s victory, it was hardly that Democrats were too nice to attack him personally.
It is also true that Democrats are not simply hallucinating about the history of the past three decades.
Since 1988, the GOP has won the popular vote only once out of seven presidential elections, in 2004. During the same time, Republican warriors starting with Newt Gingrich in the late 1980s regularly shattered political norms—as defined by establishment political figures and media organs like the New York Times—using a strategy in which politics and law were harnessed to a long-term pursuit of power.
This approach worked originally to attack Bill Clinton and Democratic congressional leaders as corrupt and vault Gingrich’s “revolutionaries” to power in the midterm elections of 1994. It did not succeed—though it did divert Clinton’s presidency for a year—during the impeachment battle of 1998. Most prominently, Republicans have engaged this long-term battle at the Supreme Court.
In 2000, during Bush v. Gore, a conservative court majority ruled 5-4 in a decision handing the presidency to Bush, even though there was nothing that supposed strict constructionists could cite in the Constitution to indicate that contested results like those in Florida should be resolved by the court.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, now regarded by Democrats as the face of shredding process in pursuit of power, blocked Obama nominee Merrick Garland and left a Supreme Court vacancy for a year until after Trump’s election and the nomination of Neil Gorsuch.
Neera Tanden, president of the liberal Center for American Progress—a group itself formed as a way of waging long-term ideological warfare in the manner that The Heritage Foundation and other conservative institutions had begun a generation earlier—said Democrats have fallen too often for Republican guile in pretending that the contest is on the level.
“Trump lives off the presumption of good faith,” she said, citing the example of Democrats’ willingness to turn over records from Elena Kagan’s White House service during the Clinton years when she was nominated by Obama for the Supreme Court, only to have Trump-allied Republicans block large portions of records from Kavanaugh’s service in the George W. Bush White House.
“They said, ‘Yeah we’re just not doing that,’” Tanden said, adding, “Democrats keep playing by a set of rules and then [Republicans] change the rules; but now that’s changing.”
An example, she said, is the attention of a new generation of Democrats not just to policy goals like heath care, but to structural factors affecting the balance of power—especially state-level issues like redistricting and obstacles to voter registration.
Paul Begala, a one-time Clinton aide who has long goaded his own party to show more fight, said the difference in the two parties’ mindsets was especially vivid during Bush v. Gore. Democrats turned in this legal and political battle to the placid, process-minded Warren Christopher; Republicans turned to a smooth Texas operator and veteran of decades of political scrapes, James A. Baker III. While Republicans dispatched young Washington aides to stage the so-called Brooks Brothers riot at election offices in Miami, Gore rejected suggestions that he mobilize mass demonstrations on his behalf and did not protest the court decision.
Begala said part of the explanation for this divide lies in Democratic psychology, citing Bill Clinton’s saying that, “Democrats want to fall in love; Republicans want to fall in line.”
But part of the difference lies in the political landscape. “Ruthlessness on the Republican side is rooted in the certain knowledge that they are in the minority,” after losing the popular vote repeatedly in presidential elections, and that the country is becoming ever-more demographically diverse in ways that, so far, benefit Democrats, Begala said. “They have to maximize every opportunity to assert the power they do have.”
Some Democrats say that classic Republican power moves—such as when then-GOP leader Tom DeLay shredded House rules in 2003 to hold a vote open for hours while he twisted arms to avoid a major defeat over Medicare, or McConnell’s obstruction on Garland—aren’t likely to become part of their party’s arsenal.
“Republicans are anti-government, so taking steps that attack or undermine governmental institutions come naturally to them, or at least to their more pugnacious leaders,” said Matt Bennett, a thought leader with the centrist group Third Way. “By contrast, Democrats believe in governing, and we are constitutionally incapable of trashing those institutions for political purposes. Democrats could never have sustained a precedent-shattering, yearlong filibuster of a Supreme Court nominee. It’s such a violation of norms that our senators, to their credit, just would not have had the stomach to do it.” He added: “I don’t think that makes us ‘weak;’ I think it makes us principled.”
Republicans counter that Democrats’ problem isn’t that they are insufficiently ruthless, but insufficiently effective. The leak of Ford’s allegations probably only moved a Senate vote or two, and may be energizing GOP voters to turn out in the upcoming midterm elections.
For now, many Democrats acknowledge that Trump’s implication that they are wimps hits a tender spot.
Ironically, Franken—the former “Saturday Night Live” star turned Minnesota senator—was himself representative of a new breed of fighting Democrat. He rose to political prominence with such smash-mouth books as “Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot,” and “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right.”
The turn of events for a person once talked about as a possible 2020 Democratic presidential candidate left Trump chortling at Thursday’s rally in Rochester, Minn. Referring to allegations that Franken had demeaned women with unwanted sexual remarks and inappropriate humor, Trump said, “It was like, ‘Oh, he did something,’ ‘Oh I resign. I quit.’”
Trump’s ethos—always fight, never quit—is one he shares with Bill Clinton. The 42nd president believes that voters want toughness in political leaders more than they do perfection in personal lives or ideological purity. During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, many congressional Democrats were furious at Clinton, and some privately hoped he would resign. But they posed no threat after Clinton demonstrated that he had rallied the party behind him. As his poll ratings climbed just weeks after the initial stories broke, Jay Leno joked that Clinton “is doing so well in the polls he’s already planning his next sex scandal.”
“If they want me out of this office,” he told a young aide that year in a chipper voice, moving his head rhythmically from side to side for emphasis, “they are going to carry me out feet first.”
It was a mindset he had cultivated long before it pertained to sexual indiscretions. In early 1995, a few months after Gingrich’s triumph in the midterms, Clinton was beset with second-guessers and critics within his own party. Some Democrats were questioning whether he had core beliefs or had the spine to stand up to Republicans. “Those who fought me tooth and nail for the last two years know well that I believed in and relished the battles,” Clinton wrote the liberal intellectual Arthur Schlesinger Jr. “Now there are two choices—fight on or pile on. The latter is easier, the former right.”